The 2014 major league baseball season has begun, and with it come the myths surrounding America’s national pastime. Thousands will visit their local ballparks, seeking the sensory experiences enjoyed by generations of fans — the smell of freshly cut grass, the taste of hot dogs, the cheers for athletic feats performed by idolized players.
New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez will not be among these players; he is serving a 162-game suspension for his use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), purchased from the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic between 2012 and 2013. Rodriguez, once considered the greatest infielder of his generation, has earned the scorn of many fans for his duplicitous disavowals of PED use. And he’s not alone. Star Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, who went to considerable lengths to clear his reputation after a first positive test, only to be implicated again in the Biogenesis scandal, has endured a similar decline in reputation.
But public memory is short. The populist outrage fans have directed at cheating players such as Rodriguez and Braun was largely absent during the game’s most recent golden age. From 1995 to 2005, labor and management colluded to produce a high-scoring spectacle. Home runs sold tickets and looked great on highlight reels, and better still, PEDs helped preserve the bodies of aging players in whom team owners had invested millions of dollars. During this period, hard-hitting sluggers such as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds helped their teams set attendance records while surpassing offensive records once held inviolate. Their record-breaking prowess proved a golden marketing opportunity for major league baseball, which had suffered a great deal of negative publicity in the wake of the strike-fueled cancellation of the 1994 World Series.
However, as rumors of rampant drug usage by players became the grist for tabloid exposés and tell-all autobiographies, owners sought to limit public-relations damage by instituting a comprehensive testing program for banned substances in 2006. The joint drug prevention and treatment program banned the use of hundreds of steroids and stimulants and served the dual purpose of protecting player health and restoring fans’ belief in the integrity of the game.
The latter purpose warrants further investigation, particularly given the unequivocal denunciations of steroid cheats by the likes of television broadcaster Bob Costas and Vice President Joe Biden. Historians Sarah Rose and Joshua Salzmann in their recent article “Bionic ballplayers: Risk, profit, and the body as commodity, 1964–2007,” published in the academic journal Labor, criticize this understanding of the PED era, explaining that “the question raised by steroids is not individual morality but rather the morality produced by a political economy of labor that calls for both services and body parts rendered.” In other words, the pressures of working in a fast-paced and extremely competitive environment forced many baseball players to push their bodies as far as modern medicine allowed.
It is thus hardly surprising that baseball owners chose a response to the problem of PED abuse that emphasized the personal responsibility of the ballplayers over the culpability of Major League Baseball. One of the hallmarks of populist outrage is its tendency to make scapegoats of individuals rather than press for systemic reform. When the baseball season was canceled in 1994, fans primarily vented their spleen at MLB commissioner Bud Selig and players’ union director Donald Fehr, not at a badly managed sport in which wealth was unequally shared among rich teams and poor teams and between management and labor. In the case of steroids, rather than question the motives of owners who rode the PED-enhanced backs of Bonds and McGwire to untold wealth, fans called out the so-called cheaters, those undeserving performers who dared disturb the sacred legacies of heroes such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.
Perhaps the most notable accomplishment of the joint drug prevention and treatment program, then, has been the institutionalization of suspicion and hypocrisy: Every player who revitalizes his career in his 30s is a potential drug abuser, every sportswriter a police investigator. Yet none of this undercuts the ever-present desire to win at all costs. Writing recently about PED use in the major leagues, former player Dirk Hayhurst noted that “as indignant as players proclaim to be … they all understand why Braun did it.” There were, he suggested, obvious financial incentives awaiting players who are able to lead their teams to the postseason. The bizarre saga of Rodriguez, who helped the Yankees during their failed bid to make the playoffs last season, captured this ambivalence perfectly. Fans of the team last year both pilloried him as “A-Fraud” and, nervous about a glaring hole at third base, were relieved that his suspension wouldn’t begin until next season.
Forgotten during the mad rush to find and punish the guilty is how utterly confusing the concept of a performance-enhancing drug is. For MLB’s purposes, a PED is whatever its program defines as one. Nevertheless, a host of far more invasive medical procedures remain available to players: Tommy John elbow surgery for pitchers (ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction), stem cell transplants, LASIK surgery and platelet-rich plasma therapy are not banned by MLB. A player who undergoes all those procedures would be adjudged perfectly clean, while a player who uses a nasal decongestant containing ephedrine may wind up suspended and branded a cheater.
The focus on individual morality has only intensified because of the dishonesty of athletes such as Rodriguez and Braun, who have gone to great lengths to deny PED use despite failed drug tests and other convincing evidence of their guilt. But it is easy to understand why these players have been so deceitful. In a sport in which certain moral failings can keep players out of the Hall of Fame — e.g., gambling on one’s games is a no-no, but avowed racism and the use of an illegal pitch appear to be permissible — these players face intense pressure to keep their reputations squeaky clean in the hopes of reaping the long-term benefits that accompany an invitation to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Is there a way out of this morass? I see only one: If an active Hall of Fame–level ballplayer — such as Derek Jeter or David Ortiz — were to hold a news conference, confess his ongoing PED usage to the public and argue that he did so because his job was on the line, fan sentiment might shift. But absent such a demystification, fans and sportswriters will continue tilting at windmills, outing one alleged cheater after another, while the owners remain above the fray, counting their record-breaking revenues.